Columns

Lost in yearning
Brinda Bose
October 24, 2008
Penguin
3 November 2008
Price: Rs 450, Pages: 264


Navtej Sarna describes his latest novel as fiction based on history. Besides fiction and history, however, The Exile is an engaging compendium of insights into royal psychologies and colonial politics recreated in post-colonial angst, expressed through multiple narratives from a deposed king on his deathbed and some of his closest associates.

Sarna has said that he needed 10 years to research and three years to write this story of Maharaja Duleep Singh, the youngest acknowledged son of Ranjit Singh, the famed Sikh ruler of Punjab.

Duleep SinghDuleep was the unfortunate heir who signed away his kingdom and his immense inherited wealth—which included the famed Koh-i-Noor diamond—to the British Sovereign at the innocent age of 11.

While the seriousness of his research into the sorry tale of a lost kingdom in the 19th-century Punjab is evident in the assemblage of historical details that realistically colour the memories of its many narrators, Sarna is able to dexterously weave his fictions of emotional upheaval and political intrigue through them, bringing to life again a king who lived (and loved) neither wisely nor too well.

Sarna's felicity in eliciting both our curiosity and sympathy for a king who was clearly confused and misled is a trick, perhaps, of the combined hats that he wears of writer and diplomat. Certainly, in cold blood, there does not appear to be much that can be deduced in favour of the character of the luckless Duleep who remains firmly at the centre of the tale that unfolds in parallel narratives, tracing his wretched experiences exiled from the fertile land of his ancestry across the seas to England, Russia and France.

Duleep's own voice anchors the novel, while complementary, often revelatory observations and perceptions are provided primarily by three others: Mangla, a favoured maid of Duleep's equally-ill-starred mother Maharani Jindan, who cared for Duleep when he was a baby and continually yearned for him and mourned his fallen fortunes; by Arur Singh, his trusted attendant for many years whom he called his son; and by Dr John Login, a Presbyterian surgeon in the Bengal Army who, along with his wife Lena, was given charge of Duleep's upbringing in the Christian tradition and whom Duleep considered his surrogate father.

While none of the narrators is Duleep's enemy—indeed, these are the people who, along with his mother Jindan exiled in Nepal, are his greatest well-wishers—there is no attempt on Sarna's part to sweeten their recollections of Duleep's travails by covering him with accolades or offering excuses for addled actions that he took as an adult.

What emerges, therefore, is a tale that is full of a poignancy born of its very facts, the story of an ill-fated childprince who lost his vast and prosperous kingdom to the unscrupulous wiles of British colonisers, and grew old lost in longing for a life he dreamt he once had and desired intensely to get back, if only he knew how.

In between, during his youthful, best and strongest years, Duleep sprang from one misguided decision to another, beginning with the conviction that he "had to be like them, as much like them as my brown skin and native birth would allow…the only way left was the way forward, to England". And so he put his head and heart to embracing Christianity, and to setting sail in search of the perfect English life: "I went into my exile innocently, almost joyously."

Duleep foolishly tried to please those who took away his fortune, and he was gullible enough to trust those who made their fortune as informants. He was no admirable kingly figure, and yet his pitiful story remains oddly moving as it twists and spins absurdly across Europe and Asia, exhibiting an unquenchable desire to recover for the exiled, erstwhile king his lustrous Sikh homeland.

Duleep's miserable death all alone in a cheap hotel room in Paris may come as no great surprise, crowning as it does a lamentably tragic life, and yet we keep turning the pages, hoping that the tide may turn for him at his twilit hour. History breathes and dies along with the fall—and fall— of this hapless king-in-exile, and Sarna is to be commended for fashioning this fine marriage of fact and fiction in print..